Who is John Galt?
Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and grew to maturity during the early days of the Communist Party’s regime in Russia. Understanding Atlas Shrugged – and Rand’s own political philosophy – is impossible without bearing that fact in mind. Rand’s father, a small-business owner, not only lost it to the Communists, but he found himself expected to run it on behalf of its new owners. As a teenager, she was allowed into the universities – previously closed to Jews – until she, like many other ‘bourgeois’ students was purged from the university for a short period of time. In 1925, she was allowed to leave Russia. She never returned.
It is true that outside events shape minds and, when that mind is genuinely brilliant, the shaping can be quite remarkable. Rand saw communism from the inside, both as an ordinary citizen and as one of its victims. She picked up the lingo the communists used to justify themselves to the Russian public – the idea that a person should work for themselves, instead of for society, was one they were determined to destroy – and saw through it. That wasn't difficult for anyone with reasonable intelligence, although speaking out about it in Russia would have brought destruction. Unlike most of Russia’s captive population, Rand was lucky enough to escape, bearing her tale with her. Atlas Shrugged is many things, but it is primarily her story about what communism does to people (and the kind of people who flourish under communism) and its ultimate end.
Atlas Shrugged is set in a ‘near-future’ United States. Rand cannot logically be blamed for failing to predict many of the social and technological changes that would take place between her novel being published and the present day. The US is still largely dependent upon railroads to transport goods and people from one side of the country to the other, while air travel is seemingly less vital than in our world. This alternate United States is the last free country on Earth; the remaining nations have absorbed the doctrine of communism and become ‘People’s States.’ The only thing that keeps them alive is aid shipments from the United States.
The United States itself, however, is dying. Washington is controlled by ‘looters’ (a phase Rand popularised) who – in accordance with their self-justification – tax every profitable business in the country. The few remaining corporations – including the once-great Taggart Transcontinental – are on the verge of collapse, pulled down by mediocrity and government fiat. The great men who built the country are either gone or fading away, leaving nothing behind, but decay. And there is one question on everyone’s mind – who is John Galt?
Into this world comes Dagny Taggart, one of the heirs to Taggart Transcontinental. Dagny is determined to save her company, whatever it takes. Her brother, the railroad’s present, is less willing or able. He is peripherally aware of the company's troubles but will not make any difficult choices, preferring to avoid responsibility for any actions while watching his company go under. Worse, he is prepared to make irrational decisions such as preferring to buy Steel from Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel, rather than Hank Rearden's Reardon Steel, despite the former continually delaying delivery of vital rail.
To summarise a complicated plot, in the course of her struggles, Dagny realises that the ‘movers and shakers,’ the remaining great men (Prime Movers, to use Rand’s term) are disappearing, leaving their companies behind for the looters to drive into the dirt. She becomes convinced that a great destroyer is moving behind the scenes, systematically tearing the country apart, and becomes determined to stop him. The ‘great destroyer’ is none other than John Galt. Stumbling into Galt’s Gulch, a secret hideaway, Dagny discovers that the great men have gone on strike. They will no longer bow down to the looters who make it impossible, even, for them to save their lives. The looter philosophy is ultimately self-destructive because, unlike nature’s parasites, they kill their hosts and in doing so commit suicide.
Refusing to accept the destruction of everything she loves, including her beloved railroad, Dagny returns to the normal world, only to discover that things are falling apart fast. Nothing she does – nothing she is allowed to do – will stop the crash. The Head of State – one of the odd points about Atlas Shrugged is that the President is always referred to as the Head of State – intends to make a broadcast on the world crisis, but his speech is hijacked by John Galt, who speaks for three hours and tells the world what has happened – and why. Soon after, John Galt is captured by the looters, but he refuses to give in and surrender his will to be free. Dagny leads a rescue mission, saves him and they fly back to Galt’s Gulch. As the United States collapses, the strikers start preparing to reclaim the world.
There is much to admire in Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s depiction of the collapsing United States is chilling (in many ways, it was an accurate depiction of what later happened to the Soviet Union) and her perception of what went so badly wrong has many uncanny echoes today. Many of the characters are realistic, although in some cases it is necessary to understand (and acknowledge) that they are mouthing platitudes to avoid having to think, for that would mean acknowledging reality.
There is also much to dislike. The book used a ridiculous amount of verbiage to get the point across. Atlas Shrugged is not light reading. It will take the average reader a day or more to get through it. There is also nothing particularly subtle about the book’s many points. This also shows up in some of the characters, particularly John Galt himself. He is the perfect man – and, as such, is boring.
The book is also remarkably sterile. No one seemed to have children apart from a handful who are mentioned as living in Galt’s Gulch. None of the main characters (good or bad) have children. The closest thing to a father-son relationship is between Hank and the Wet Nurse, the young man who is assigned to keep an eye on him for the government and realises the truth, but even that is oddly sterile. Rand herself, of course, had no children and may not have understand that there is no virtue of selfishness when children are involved. A mother would give up her last morsel of food to feed her children, just to be rewarded by a smile.
Rand was, in many ways, right. Competition does make companies stronger and more capable of adapting to the changes in the world. (In the book, the government pushes for anti-competition laws, seemingly unwilling to realise that this kills companies and has a disastrous knock-on effect.) Excessive regulation kills pretty much anything, from businesses to teaching. Failing to teach children how to tell the difference between reality and make-believe – or hammering politically-correct platitudes into their heads – kills. And trusting people who know nothing about a certain industry to regulate it is asking for trouble.
At the same time, there are many flaws in the book. Every ‘good’ character in the book stands on the shoulders of giants. John Galt’s inventions were based on the work of earlier geniuses – this doesn’t disprove his own genius, but it does place it in context – just as a modern-day nuclear researcher would owe a debt to Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. Furthermore, the big companies like Reardon Steel have thousands of employees working under Hank – they cannot all be great men. And Dagny, perhaps Rand’s alter ego, is the worst of all when it comes to standing on the shoulders of giants. She inherits her position from her father, she builds her railroads out of Reardon Metal, produced by Hank; her one gift is the ability to see what must be done and the force of personality to push it through. Not something to sniff at, true, but not in the same category as Hank or John Galt.
There are other, odder, points in the book. Rand’s view of nature is poor – nature exists solely to produce raw materials for her great men. Others would disagree. And then her companies would certainly pollute the area if someone didn’t stop them. Rand may be right to say that people who know nothing shouldn’t be passing judgement, but what about the people who live downwind of Reardon Steel? Her great men (and woman) perform superhuman feats of endurance, with little sleep, limited food and hundreds of cigarettes. None of them seem beaten down by anything, but the sullen pressure from the looters.
A hostile reviewer once referred to the struggle within Atlas Shrugged as one where the Children of Light face the Children of Darkness. In some ways, there is a lot of truth to that. Good characters are handsome, beautiful, intelligent, etc. Bad characters are ugly, stupid (or clever when it comes to inventing self-justifications) and so on. At the same time, some characters show unexpected depths. Hank Reardon, in many ways, funds forces that are fundamentally opposed to everything he is, while supporting moochers – his mother, his wife and his brother. It does not seem to occur to Rand that most people might like supporting their families, although Hank’s case is a bit extreme. It might explain his willingness to keep his word in business matters, but to cheerfully break his marriage vows.
I also felt an odd bit of sympathy for Jim Taggart – not, I am sure, a feeling Rand would understand or approve. The older Jim is a stupid asshole, true, but the younger one could have been something more. Everyone meets, in their time, someone who is far better at them at something they consider to be important. It takes a stronger mind than Jim Taggart to walk away unscathed when he is effortlessly outshone by his rival and excluded from children’s games. I don’t blame him for being bitter, but he goes far too far.
There are really too many points to cover in a single review, but one that it worth looking at is the aristocracy of need. Rand makes the point that many people want or need something that they have no intrinsic right to have, using a character who sues a banker because the banker refused to give him a loan. Quite reasonably; the banker saw that the man had nothing to guarantee the loan and no reasonable prospects for success. Of course, the man ‘thought’ he needed it – it wasn't a real need (like food and drink).
Where this leads is what happened to Soviet Russia. The people who believe that giving the needy what they want take power and then grow fat on the proceeds of distributing the wealth from the rich to the poor. This is, alas, a pattern that has repeated itself in our own world, both in unnecessary subsidies to various departments that have long since outlived their usefulness and in foreign aid, where far too many people do well by doing good. In the end, though, as one character points out:
“So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”
It is important to remember, when reading Atlas Shrugged, that Rand was effectively writing a book to justify her political points – and, in effect, to prove that she was right. In many ways, Atlas Shrugged lacks much of the richness of modern life – an interesting comparison is Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – because her characters have to react in certain ways. It is a tribute to Rand’s genius that she pulled it off as well as she did. At the same time, it could not be perfect.
In many ways, Rand’s philosophy – Objectivism – makes a great deal of sense. At the same time, it – like so many other political philosophies – is largely incapable of being used in the real world – which, let’s face it, is a messy place.
Atlas Shrugged is not, and never will be, great literature. As a novel, it is chunky and overblown, with sharp moral lines and few shades of grey. The technological development has not aged well. On the other hand, it is thought-provoking and generally interesting. Read, but swallow with care.